Looting of Iraq’s ancient ruins getting bad again

Looted Sumerian tomb near DhahirNot that it ever got supergreat. Since the invasion, there hasn’t been anything like sufficient security at the many sites of archaeological importance in Iraq. Coalition forces had been doing some policing, however, and containing the worst of the excesses seen in 2003. That was before the drawdowns began, and although police were supposed to be trained to replace them, the government has not made them a priority. The result is the devastatingly predictable recurrence of looting.

The looting today has not resumed on the scale it did in the years that immediately followed the American invasion in 2003, when looters — tomb raiders, essentially — swarmed over sites across the country, leaving behind moonlike craters where Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Persian cities once stood.

Even so, officials and archaeologists have reported dozens of new excavations over the past year, coinciding with the withdrawal of American troops, who until 2009 conducted joint operations with the Iraqi police in many areas now being struck by looters again. The antiquities police say they do not have the resources even to keep records of reported lootings.

Here in Dhahir, the looting is evident in the shattered bits of civilization — pieces of pottery, glass and carved stone — strewn across an expanse of desert that was once a Sumerian trading town known as Dubrum.

The bowls, vases and other pieces are destroyed and discarded by looters who seek gold, jewelry and cuneiform tablets or cylinders that are easy to smuggle and resell, according to Abdulamir al-Hamdani, a former antiquities inspector in Dhi Qar Province. The nearest city, Farj, is notorious for a black market in looted antiquities, he said.

“For me, for you, it is all priceless,” he said, “but for them it is useless if they can’t sell it in the market.”

Antiquities police headquarters in BaghdadThe antiquities police force was supposed to have over 5,000 troops on the ground by now. They have 106, barely enough to protect the Ottoman mansion that houses their headquarters. The antiquities board, which has a lot more to fund than just the security force, asked for a budget of $16 million this year, but they got $2.5 million.

There’s no money, no personnel, and even when the prime minister himself orders more police on the ground, nothing comes of it. Then there’s the corruption of local government and law enforcement which gives looting operations easy access to archaeological sites. It’s a nightmare, and there’s no awakening in sight.

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